For those of us who have lost a parent, holidays can be confusing to deal with. The time around Mother’s Day and Father’s day can be especially difficult to navigate, and we’ve asked LA-based Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen to weigh in with a little wisdom on how to deal. Here’s her story, a few insights from her counseling work and some emotionally thoughtful tips that’ll help you through…
At six years old, I nearly lost my mother. Years later, I came to understand this episode as the catalyst for my becoming a rabbi; like many clergy colleagues, the trauma pointed me toward helping others through their own challenges, rather than fleeing from them.
The circumstances were unusual. At 39, Mom was diagnosed with a benign meningioma. This was 1990, a time when brain tumors were – devastatingly – far less common than they are today. I had just entered first grade; my brother was approaching his first birthday. Yet what made it all so strange was this: Three decades earlier, my mother’s mother died of what was believed to be a malignant brain tumor. My mother was six; her brother was one.
The strange echoes of that earlier family loss were everywhere. Through mom’s diagnosis, treatment and recovery, ever-present was the mother she’d barely known. The narrative was something I seemed to grasp, even at six years old. Hovering between past and present, somewhere between life and death, we simply existed in the day-to-day for nearly one year. By the time I entered second grade, Mom’s health – and our life – was pretty much back to normal. Yet for years I struggled to accept that my mother had survived; I was anxious, maybe even a bit paranoid, that I would lose her for good.
And so, Mother’s Day has always been a strange beast for me: the heartbreak in never knowing my maternal grandmother coupled with the near-loss of my own mother has proved a tough combination. I’ve never fully warmed to Mother’s or Father’s Day, dismissing them as corny, fluffed-up, inauthentic Hallmark holidays. Whether defense mechanism or mere annoyance, these springtime celebrations haven’t made a positive, lasting mark on my own internal sense of time, though they’ve been recognized in the U.S. for over a century.
Additionally, over many Mother’s and Father’s Days, I’ve witnessed such profound sadness in dear friends who’ve lost parents. It’s not hard to understand why. The inescapable onslaught of brunch reservations, flower advertisements and extended Facebook posts provides those who’ve lost parents incessant reminders of what they no longer have. For so long, I’ve wanted to insulate my friends from those painful reminders; to hold onto their pain for them or take it away altogether. Why must we shove in your face what no longer exists?
This year, I wanted to explore this strange springtime conundrum, to discover how we might see Mother’s and Father’s Days through a new lens. I wanted to know, can we turn Mother’s Day and Father’s Day into celebrations, even when we’re grieving? I asked a few friends who’ve endured (and are continuing to navigate) loss and did some thinking myself. Here’s what we found…
On Mother’s and Father’s Days, or on special dates like a parent’s birthday or the anniversary of their death, it’s important to take time and remember something they loved.
For Carla Fernandez, co-founder of The Dinner Party, on the date of her father’s passing, she and her family hold food and wine tastings (her father worked in the wine industry), pairing each course with a song he loved. To celebrate one’s life and passions in such a real, celebratory way offers a powerful connection and new framework for the present moment.
For Carly de Castro, co-founder of Pressed Juicery, indulging in her mother’s favorite piece of cake and singing her most-beloved songs offers a link to her familial roots. Doing something unique to her late mother’s style has shown Carly how personal grief can be. “You have to be open,” she shared, “there’s no one prescriptive path, and you heal by learning how to trust your instincts. What you need will evolve over time.”
Additionally, consider the following activities to honor the memory of a parent:
Host dinner or drinks to celebrate their life. Gather at a restaurant they loved, ask guests to share stories and memories. Don’t be afraid to cry in public. Let it flow.
Visit their grave/memorial. Clergy in certain cities will often hold prayer services on Mother’s and Father’s Day, open to all faiths. Find out if one is happening near you.
Do an activity they loved. Were they avid hikers? Did they spend hours in the stacks of a public library? Was there a special spot in the house where they loved to paint? Follow their lead, stand in their footsteps, allow yourself to feel a possible connection to that which they loved – and to them.
Spend time alone. It may be that you need your own time and space, away from the various goings-on of the day, to mourn privately. Take your time, but remember this Jewish teaching: Following a funeral or memorial service, we return to the house of mourning to eat alongside others. In doing so, we nourish our bodies, affirm life, grieve in community and hold one another up. We do not mourn alone.
Altogether, everyone grieves differently. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will never be easy for anyone who’s lived through the loss of a parent. Be open, pay attention to what you need, know it will evolve over time and lean on the support and generosity of those who can meet you where you are. Hold one another up, affirm life here on Earth and, above all, remember this timeless teaching from Robert Frost: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”